Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why do I care about Zimbabwe?

In an article titled "Who's Africa's Worst Dictator," Slate correspondent Peter Maass argues that Robert Mugabe is not the worst dictator in Africa. That honor belongs to Teodoro Obiang, who has been more ruthless than Mugabe both in crushing opposition and in oppressing the general public of his country of Equatorial Guinea. In fact, reading the article, I agree: Obiang is a master of dictatorship while Mugabe is simply adept at it. Maass compares Obiang's work to the mess that is North Korea, truly the most oppressive place on earth, without exagerating his original case.

If that's so, why do I keep on posting about Zimbabwe and only toss off references to North Korea and don't even mention Obiang? Because, in a world of limited time and political capital, I believe we should do the most good when the situation permits. Obiang's situation still finds him strong. Maass basically sums up my case:
"Obiang's enforcers don't need to club people on the streets. His
would-be opponents are too frightened to openly demonstrate against
him. His is the Switzerland of dictatorships—so effective at enforcing
obedience that the spectacle of unrest is invisible."
That's the difference: situations on the ground permit the democratization of Zimbabwe in the near term. I was surprised at the results of the elections there earlier this year, where Mugabe's ZANU-PF party lost control of the legislature to Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC. The earlier elections weren't free, weren't fair, but still had high turnout and somehow managed to displace the ruling party from at least one branch of government. What's even more amazing is that the legislative results will stand: the MDC will still be in power when Mugabe wins the Presidency on the 27th.

The people of Zimbabwe want democracy, as evidenced by their high turnout (something that was bad for Mugabe, and was not encouraged by him) and their actual legitimate exercise of the right to vote as they pleased. Mugabe controls the executive, the courts, the army and various local militias, but he's lost the legislature. The people of Zimbabwe are practicing democracy, as well as they can under the circumstances.

The most important reason why I write again and again about Zimbabwe and not, for example, Chad or Sudan, where dictators oppress and kill more people more cruelly is that Zimbabwe has a real alternative. The MDC is a legitimate, built-up political party. If allowed to govern, it would be able to do so (though it might not do very well, that remains to be seen). In many countries run by dictators, the opposition is either ethnic, religious or military. If that was the case in Zimbabwe, I wouldn't be talking about it. The MDC is a political group with national reach and appeal. It has regional and ethnic components, to be sure, but so do the Republican and Democratic parties in the US. So while I dislike Chad's dictator Idriss Deby, I don't talk about Chad because there isn't a ready democratic opposition to his rule.

Another country I do not address is Burma, where the military keeps democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi virtually imprisoned for decades. While she is a powerful force for democracy, I'm not entirely convinced her party would be able to exist without her. I may be wrong on this point, but I see Aung San Suu Kyi as the glue of her entire democratic movement, while Morgan Tsvangirai is simply the head of a political party that matured from a democratic movement.

Because I see the opportunity for real and lasting change in Zimbabwe, I write about it.

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